the action of saving or being saved
It was sometime in late 2010 when my mate started thinking about ways to kill me off.
He was just trying to be helpful. He knew that I had become extremely sick of my work persona -- the part of me that tries to fight every day for the good -- so sick of it, in fact, that I had nearly gotten rid of the rest of me along with it not a few months before.
So he came up with a great idea. He said I should give up all the work that was killing me and turn to writing the Lucrative Mystery Series (LMS) I’d been fantasizing about for years. And in the first book, I should kill myself off.
“You mean kill off a character like me?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “kill off Alice Dreger. Then when people come looking for her, you can said, ‘She’s dead. She was killed in this book.’ You can still be you, but not her.”
I loved the idea. Actually, saying I “loved” it doesn’t capture what this idea did for me, just as saying I love my husband fails to capture what he does for me. This idea, like its maker, has sustained me. Kept me alive. For nearly three years, every time I have found myself trying to fight for the good, and going through the anxiety, self-doubt, and self-loathing that comes with these fights, my brain has saved me by spending a huge chunk of my consciousness (and sub-) working out the future murder of myself. Or rather, working out how the LMS’s protagonist (a much younger, more careful, quieter version of myself) figures out the murder of the wizened me.
A few weeks ago another round came, with a national case of failure of informed consent -- babies, again, pregnant women, again. I didn’t want to get involved.
But then, there I was, watching good people trying to fight for sanity and the protection of research subjects -- and, well, I felt like I had to offer to help. I have skills, and contacts, and strategic experience. . . . It’s not like they couldn’t have done without me; they absolutely could have. But I figured it was kind of like a car with a flat at the side of the road, and I just happened to have the right kind of jack and it seemed stupid not to stop and lend it to the people working on the flat. Especially with the rain and the dark coming . . . .
I said to the mate, “I’m not going to get really involved. I’m just going to help with a little background stuff.”
He said, “Uh huh,” and then he immediately started reading up on it all so he could help me help. The way he always does now.
(It’s funny. Because, in the LMS, he’s divorced from me before I’m murdered. It’s not that he doesn’t love and admire me, it’s just that he grows tired of the life of questing. In the book, he craves normality. Normal life, like other people have and want. And I can’t deliver that.)
Years ago, a psychologist ally in the intersex rights movement said she thought I would probably stick with the movement only until I worked out my gender issues. By this, I presume she meant that I was a closeted lesbian who would come out eventually.
I didn’t try to argue with her. Arguing in such a situation turns you into Freud’s cigar. I know that academics and activists tend to be involved in topics that implicate whatever it is they themselves are trying to work out psychologically. But for me it wasn’t gender, or sexuality. For years I thought it perhaps was normality? But no. Now I think it has always been -- still is -- about the Good.
I was raised Roman Catholic. And not the amateur version. I still credit my strong back muscles to the 45 minutes a night of rosary (on our knees). I tried to take to it -- I really did. Once a month as a teenager, I even did this crazy thing called “Nocturnal Adoration” which involved getting up at three a.m. with my dad and my sister to go to church and take an hour-long shift adoring the Eucharist via the ritualistic mumbling of a lot of really obscure (and slightly erotic) biblical passages. I spent the whole time fascinated by the prose, by the rhythms, by the imagery. My mind was working on writing while my mouth was praying.
I never did get faith. Again and again they told me to pray for faith, but being a natural rationalist, I realized by about the age of fifteen that praying for faith represented a kind of an infinite loop of silliness -- a religious version of faking orgasm. You only fake orgasm if you feel sorry for a guy. I didn’t feel sorry for God. A decade later, while my sister was becoming a nun, I was a self-identified atheist doing a dissertation on sex.
But while I easily gave up confession, communion, and even my jealousy of people who had a religious crutch I understood would be a nice accessory to have stored in the umbrella bin (just for rainy days), what I couldn’t give up was the sense of how important it is to live your life doing good.
Not being good. Being good is hard when you’re human. It’s too Protestant an ideal. Now, doing good when you knew you couldn’t be good in your heart as you should be -- that, well, that seemed like the way to live. The only option. It all went back to that time when my mother, in exhausted disgust of the state of our small world, said to herself within my hearing, “Forget all the dogma. Being good just means being good to others.”
I thought, “Okay. That I can do. Because being good to others just means doing good.” That I can do.
And so my sister donned her cloth and religious habit, and I donned a pair of jeans and a psychological habit of helping people. I tried hard to do it in the way my mother always did -- with humility. But I have in me the fire of my father’s side, the impatience with stupidity and cowardice, and with deflating subtly, I suppose.
I think by this point, I’ve managed to do a lot of good. In the last twenty years, I’ve helped a lot of people individually -- often just by listening when no one else would -- and I’ve helped achieve a bit of good systemic change here and there.
I don’t want to do it anymore.
I can’t exactly explain why. Part of it is the cost, I suppose. The bruising I took during the dexamethasone scene in 2010 seems to have a lot to do with it. But it’s more than that. It’s the whole book I’m (forever) finishing up, on controversies. I think I’ve witnessed so many of these things now, it’s just impossible for me to approach them anymore without a sense of great trepidation. I know now more than I ever understood before how these things are not battles of good and evil, but tales of good intentions and bad outcomes. At the same time, so often the side with the power doesn’t fight fair -- it is just hard to take it, to watch good people be fed into the fan blades of power. (To know I used to push them towards the fan blades, maybe.)
Or maybe I am just old enough to have finally recognized the innate selfishness in me, to give into it. The part that says, “We’re entitled to a day off. Or even a week.” The part that says, “There’s nothing wrong with doing what you love rather than what you ‘must.’” The part that says, “Maybe you no longer have to pretend it doesn’t hurt.”
Or maybe I’m just old enough now not to have to prove something to my parents anymore. (My relationship with them is so much better since I stopped trying. They must be as relieved as I am.) The mate believes I’m a good person. That feels like having reached heaven -- even if I did fake my way here, with good acts dressing up a bad soul. He actually loves who I am. That’s true redemption.
(“Redemption: 1. The action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil. 2. A thing that saves someone from error or evil.”)
It becomes a little boring, every day, to have the conversation with oneself about what is normal, what pathological. To ask oneself every day what is the motivation, and is the motivation what matters, or is it the action, or the outcome, or the relationships built while its all happening? Or what?
The conversations between the historian-detective-protagonist and the academic activist who will be murdered are rich and deep and yet all lead to the same outcome: the truth ferreted out, and a verdict of guilty.
How many times have I said to my excellent philosopher friend Ellen, “I just want to be normal”? And she knows what I mean -- not that I want to be like others, but that I want others to be like me.
Now I think of that as a grandiose desire, and try to be mature.
And so, this month, by mutual agreement, the mate and I have replaced the red dining room and red dishes with an ivory dining room with blue-gray dishes. We picked out the dishes together on our vacation in California. And, in the last six months, I have for the most part backed off of it all, so much so that I have gained seven pounds, as I no longer run and swim and bike in anxiety every day.
I step back confidently, now, without much guilt, from the fire.
But then I remember my mother reading Plato to us at the breakfast table -- “the unexamined life is not worth living” -- and remember her observation: to have a life capable of really being examined, it must really be lived. To write what you know, you have to first know, and to know, you have to first live.
And then only thinking feels like praying -- something to be done at the end?
I make a note of it, for the novel.